NIOSH’s Firefighter On-Duty Death Surveillance System

The United States depends on about 1.1 million firefighters to protect its citizens and property from fire. Approximately 336,000 are career firefighters, 812,000 are volunteers, and 80 to 100 die in the line of duty each year.

To address this occupational hazard, the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program conducts independent investigations of fire fighter line-of-duty deaths.

The NIOSH Wildland Fire Fighter On-Duty Death Surveillance System captured 247 unique deaths from the three data sources that occurred between 2001 and 2012. When comparing the fatalities across the three data sources, only 73% (181) of fatalities were identified within all three.

Thirteen percent (31) were identified in two sources and 14% (35) were identified in only one source. Because no one data source captures all unique deaths, it is necessary for NIOSH researchers to use the data from all three data sources to truly understand the number and the types of deaths captured within each data source.

Wildland firefighters are required to pass an “arduous duty” physical fitness test annually to help ensure that they are prepared for the physical nature of the job. Unlike structural firefighting, wildland firefighting often requires long work shifts that may last up to 14 continuous days, and often takes place in environments that are challenging with regard to temperature and terrain.

Because of this difference, researchers cannot assume that study findings among structural firefighters would apply to wildland firefighters.

To develop NIOSH’s Wildland Fire Fighter On-Duty Death Surveillance System, researchers identified three data sources that track on-duty wildland firefighter fatalities and provide the types of data needed for this occupational health surveillance effort:

The process for developing this surveillance system and keeping it up to date by using three data sources can be challenging and time consuming for several reasons. First, the data sources do not collect the same level of detail. For example, USFA collects up to 233 pieces of information for each fatality while NWCG collects nine. Second, the data are released at different intervals as some data sources report in almost real-time while others do not report until several years after the event.

Finally, for some cases reported in multiple data sources, information such as the exact date or locations of death differs making it difficult to match up cases between data sources.

Thus, to confirm cases and ensure the information collected is accurate, NIOSH has to reach out to the agencies that collected the data as well as other sources to determine whether a reported fatality was truly unique or actually contained within more than one data source.